Art as Therapy Becomes an Outlet for Mental Health Issues During Pandemic

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Art Therapy Institute clients receive art supplies at home.
ATI clients receive art supplies at home. (Photo courtesy Bridget Pemberton-Smith)

By Claire Delano

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, many face mental health challenges alongside the financial and physical issues. The Art Therapy Institute of NC (ATI), founded by Ilene Sperling, Eva Miller and Kristin Linton, has offered a unique form of therapy to the community since 2006. Through classes, support groups and individual sessions, patients are taught how to use art to work through their emotions and build self-esteem. Today, from their studio in Carrboro, ATI serves more than 600 people throughout the area, from children with disabilities in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, to refugees and immigrants, to seniors with dementia, and many others with mental health needs. But when the coronavirus began sweeping the country, ATI, like many businesses and nonprofits, had to adjust to continue providing this help.

“I think most of ATI’s therapists would say that doing therapy virtually lacks the connection they are used to with in-person therapy,” says Development Director Bridget Pemberton-Smith. “However, they have all had successes and they and their clients have learned to adapt in the most beautiful ways.” The therapists have done everything from mailing free art kits to patients to recommending arts-based apps and even doing yoga over video chat.  

ATI’s 13 therapists have discovered some unexpected positives since offering online services. People as far away as New York, California and Montreal have tuned in to ATI’s professional workshops and art classes. The Arts and Peer Support Group, which meets virtually once a week, has been able to welcome patients from rural North Carolina, other states and people with social anxiety who find the virtual group meetings more accessible. ATI Director Hillary Rubesin shared a letter from a group member who wrote that “[Arts and Peer Support] is such an oasis. I don’t need to perform in any way… We just support each other. Just care for each other. Just affirm the challenges of living with mental health diagnoses. We understand the weariness that can bring. We laugh. We give space.”

Hillary believes that art therapy is especially important now, as COVID-19 worsens feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. “The arts allow us to process our complex emotions during this pandemic, to externalize our thoughts and feelings and hopefully work with ourselves and each other to create images of healing and hope in the midst of all the unknowns we are currently sitting with,” she says. 

Currently, ATI is hosting a fundraiser to keep its programs affordable for clients. More than 75% live at or below the poverty line, a population that is especially vulnerable during the pandemic. The Institute has raised almost $20,000 so far and appreciates the continued support. 

Between the isolation, job insecurity and worries about putting food on the table, COVID-19 has produced a unique set of mental health difficulties. “While art therapy can’t fix these very concrete problems,” Bridget acknowledges, “giving a person space to process the fear and anxiety is important. Art therapy allows people to connect with others and to know they are not alone in their struggles.” 

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